Brazil’s Forest Code Turns from a Green Dream Law into Anti-Green Nightmare

Amazon deforestation Brazil’s vice president Michel Temer reports that negotiations have begun in Congress to draw up another Forest Code as it is expected that president Dilma Rousseff will veto parts or all of the bill that was passed in the Chamber of Deputies at the end of April.

“There may be vetoes. Members of Congress are negotiating with the government. The objective is to reach an agreement on a new text that will adequately reflect what the government thinks and what the Congress thinks,” declared the vice president, a former president of the PMDB known for his negotiating skills.

At the end of last year, the government negotiated a satisfactory Code bill that was approved at that time by the Senate. However, even though the Senate bill had been subjected to hearings and discussions involving environmentalists, the executive branch and Congress (including members of the farm lobby in the Chamber of Deputies), the government was taken by surprise when the lower house rejected the Senate bill, rewrote the text and passed a Forest Code that was completely different.

The fingerprints of more extreme elements in the farm lobby were all over it. The bill, instead of expanding protected areas, recovering areas already destroyed (“return to original state”) and reducing deforestation in Brazil (as the government wanted), would open huge new areas to deforestation and older pasture and crop areas to further destruction as ranchers and farmers would be allowed to expand their activities.

Arriving almost on the eve of the Rio+20 United Nations Sustainable Development Conference, the radical wording of the bill put the government in an uncomfortable position.

The president has made it clear that the bill is not acceptable and at least two ministers (Institutional Relations and Environment) have gone public with declarations in favor of vetoing parts or all of the it. President Dilma has until May 25 to make a decision.

The minister of Environment, Izabella Teixeira, joined the minister of Institutional Relations, Ideli Salvatti, calling for president Dilma Rousseff to veto all or part of the text recently approved by the Chamber of Deputies.

“My position is in favor of a veto. And I do not hesitate to say so,” declared Teixeira, adding that she was concerned with socio-environmental aspects of the bill. She said she would have preferred approval of the bill that passed the Senate at the end of last year.”

The work done in the Senate deserved to be respected. It was transparent and democratic. There was open debate. At the same time we have to be responsible about vetoes. The problem with the Piau bill (from Paulo Piau, the bill’s chief sponsor in the Chamber of Deputies) is that it creates serious social and environmental problems and you cannot just keep kicking the can down the road when you have serious social and environmental problems.”

At the heart of the Forest Code dispute is the question of just how much land a landowner can legally clear for agricultural activities. Historically, there are two restrictions in Brazilian legislation: so-called permanent areas of protection (APPs), which is vegetation along riverbanks (15 to 100 meters, depending on the size of the river), and on hillsides (steep inclinations are protected) and hilltops (always out of bounds).

Then there is the so-called legal reserve that requires a certain percentage of land to remain intact; the size of the reserve varies with the part of the country where the land is located.

The Brazilian government had planned to showcase a new Forest Code at the Rio+20 UN Sustainable Development Conference (June 13 to 22). It was supposed to have been an example of how modern, mature legislation could balance agricultural development and environmental protection.

The Piau bill that came out of the Chamber of Deputies last month put the administration in an embarrassing position. It will make it difficult for Brazil to fulfill international commitments regarding greenhouse gas emissions, for example. And the bill is a nightmare for any would-be sustainable development model.

The text basically forgives all deforestation that occurred before July 22, 2008, which is when an Environmental Crime Law went into effect. Only a minimum amount of vegetation along riverbanks is protected. Hilltops and most hillsides are no longer considered permanent protection areas.

The academic community reacted quickly, warning that the Piau bill would immediately place over 20 million hectares in danger of legalized destruction. Another back-of-the-envelope calculation estimated that deforestation would rise over 45% within a decade.

Approval of the Piau text revealed problems with the government’s vast, tumid congressional majority. Out of the 22 political parties with representatives in Congress, 17 are government allies – but there are so many conflicting interests and priorities involved that frequently the members vote at cross-purposes with the government.

For example, most (but not all) of the deputies in states where deforestation is a lesser problem, such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, voted with the government; however, in states where it is a burning issue, such as Goiás, Mato Grosso, Rondônia, Roraima and Tocantins, over 85% of the deputies voted in favor (in Mato Grosso and Tocantins the vote was 100% in favor).

Not all the news from the Chamber of Deputies was bad. Exactly a year ago, April, 2011, the government got thrashed badly in its first attempt to get a Forest Code through the lower house. No less than 410 out of 513 deputies voted against the government. This time only 274 deputies voted against the government.

The social activist/assistance program linked to the Catholic Church, Commissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), reports that between 2010 and 2011 there was a 15% increase in violent land conflicts in Brazil.

Commenting on the report, the secretary general of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dom Leonardo Steiner, observed that if the Forest Code recently approved by the Chamber of Deputies becomes law “the number of land conflicts will probably increase.”

“Unfortunately, the bill approved by the Chamber of Deputies is not a good example of ethics. It favors farmer profits and the export of farm produce. If it is not vetoed it will probably mean more violence in the countryside, more landownership conflicts. It will also mean that future CPT reports will be even more gloomier,” said Steiner, adding that the bill approved by the Chamber of Deputies was “a equivocal model of development,” that made agribusiness a priority over traditional farming.

“We hope that in the future we have a Codigo Florestal that creates the possibility of harmonious relations in the countryside,” the CNBB secretary general concluded.

Meanwhile, spokespersons for the CPT complained that the text of the bill approved by the Chamber of Deputies made environmental laws so flexible as to render them worthless, besides creating an amnesty for perpetrators of environmental crimes, such as the destruction of protected areas.

Minister Ideli Salvatti, of Institutional Relations, says she is sure that president Dilma Rousseff will veto parts of the Chamber of Deputies code.

Salvatti declared it is well known that the president will not permit an amnesty for illegal deforestation or accept a bill with provisions that are harmful to small farmers.

“The president has made it clear that there will be no compromise on two points: small farmers must be protected and there will be no amnesty for deforestation. I am convinced that some articles will be vetoed because they deal with those matters in an unacceptable manner. Now, if a new bill can be drawn up that deals adequately with these problems, the gesture will be considered very positive,” declared the minister.

An alternative proposal was in fact presented on April 25, authored by deputies Luiz Henrique from Santa Catarina state and Jorge Viana from Acre.

“The government is pleased with the Luiz Henrique/Jorge Viana proposal. There were hopes that the Chamber of Deputies would approve the text that was passed in the Senate that was the fruit of an agreement between environmentalists and landowners.

What the Chamber of Deputies did was approve a text written by Deputy Paulo Piau, that favored only the rural caucus. As a result the president will decide in a few days to veto part of that bill,” said Salvatti.



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